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Mind Your Business: Pre-production Needs to Change

Rules MUST be changed when new ideas and innovations arise. Rules that keep us from moving forward are stupid.

Change is hard for some people. But change happens anyway. The sooner you get on board, the less painful it will be and the less you will be left behind.

There are times when a piece of hardware and/or a piece of software makes such a difference in an industry that everything changes…whether some people want it to or not.

The iPod and iTunes changed the way we buy and listen to music. Lots of people bitched about it, but that didn’t stop the revolution.

CG software and personal computers changed the way we create special effects and compositing.

Editing software changed the way we edit film and TV. Do you really want to go back to splicing film on a flatbed? There were lots of editors who resisted the switch to digital for years, even after the process was proven.

Pre-production has changed and it’s past time for everyone to get on board. And I’m talking about more than just artists. Production people, editors and unions need to get with the show too.

Up until about 8-10 years ago, storyboards were always drawn on paper. They would be photocopied for all departments. Then we started scanning the boards to color them in Photoshop and sometimes we’d add limited animation and camera moves in After Effects. The process for coloring and fixing got faster.

Then some artists started drawing their boards digitally in Photoshop, Sketchbook or Flash. Making changes and delivering to clients got faster still.

Then came digital storyboarding software, made specifically for pre-production. There are a few options, but Toon Boom’s Storyboard Pro is head and shoulders above the rest (and I have sat down and used most of them).

I don’t need to go into the benefits of drawing digitally, that’s pretty damn obvious. It’s the rest of the previs and animatics process that is changing but most productions don’t know how to take advantage of it and too many people in various departments are fighting a battle that only hurts production.

When I see a better process, I don’t care what the old rules are. Rules can be changed. Actually, rules MUST be changed when new ideas and new inventions arise. Rules that keep us from moving forward are stupid.

What kind of stupid rules am I talking about? Well, one is a rule that story artists can’t edit animatics on a union production. Bullshit. Sure we can. I do it all the time. The rule might as well change because it’s already happening. And guess what? Productions that do allow it are benefiting in numerous ways.

Editors who are fighting this transition, while trying to hold onto their turf, are only hurting production. I’m not saying we don’t need editors, we do. I’m saying editors need to use the same previs software the artists are using (at least use it during the boarding process and THEN move to their favorite editing software) and the entire process will be immensely better. I’ll describe the new and improved process in a bit.

Are the editors the only ones to blame? Hell no. Some artists refuse to admit how creating animatics as they work makes them better story tellers. They are scared to change. They should be scared of being left behind.

Unions who stick with antiquated rules are mucking up what can be a beautifully efficient system. They should be leading the way with new technology.

Production management doesn’t know enough about what’s possible with new previs software so more often than not they stick with what they know, not with what’s best.

There are a few arguments about the production of animatics in the animation industry.

Should board artists be paid extra for doing animatics? Of course they should.

Production managers and editors think only editors should edit the story reels. Wrong. It should be board artists AND editors working together.

Many board artists don’t see it as their job to edit an animatic. It’s their job to tell a visual story and building an animatic as they work makes them better story artists. When I’m boarding, I hit the play button and I can see if my shots are working or not. The director can see instantly how the scenes are coming together as the board artist works. (EVERY director I work with LOVES being able to see a rough animatic even as I’m thumbnailing the shots as we work)

The answers are easy, but those stuck in the ways of the past and those who are unwilling to challenge existing rules are standing in the way of progress.

This is not a win-lose proposition. Board artists and editors can work together to make the entire previs process better and faster. But they both have to work together. I just never see them working together in the best way.

Board artists need to quit complaining and build animatics (actually, most board artists I talk to LOVE building the animatics as they work. Once they start, they never go back.). They are creating the shots and no one knows the timing of their gags better than they do. Only the artist, while working with the director, knows how the various layers and camera moves should work. Why make someone guess? It’s easy to create an animatic during the drawing process when you use the right software.

Editors are masters of their craft. They know how to move scenes around to tell the best story and how to manipulate shots down to the frame to get the best out of every shot. Their job is easier when the board artist lays out the initial pass while working with the director.

They should work together. It’s actually quite easy, but no one does it.

It’s not brain surgery. It’s simply looking at how the process will work best using the latest technology and forgetting about any rules or traditions that get in the way of progress.

A Better Previs Process

Here’s how the production of animatics/previs works best.

  • The storyboard artist with the director creates the boards and builds an animatic for a sequence in Storyboard Pro.
  • Layer motions and camera moves can be added.
  • He/she adds whatever sound effects, scratch tracks, transitions he/she feels best tells the story
  • The editor opens the same file in Storyboard Pro and fine tunes the edit.
    • Scenes can be moved around
    • Timings of any layer move or camera move can be edited
    • The editor may make suggestions as to certain shots that should be added
    • The editor can add blank frames and descriptions of the new shots
    • The editor and director can even sketch in thumbnails of their thoughts
    • The editor replaces/adds/updates any audio available
    • The director can play with the edit to get it just the way he wants
    • Notes may be written on the panels to make certain shots stronger
    • They save the file
  • The story artist re-opens the same file to draw the added or changed panels
    • Drawings and layers can be adjusted as per the notes
  • The editor goes back into the revised file and makes final revisions.
  • At any time in the process, the board artist or editor can go back in to make adjustments without taking any steps backwards.
    • No need to try and match work someone does in another program if we all work in the same program.
  • The finished sequences can then be exported and compiled in the editor’s favorite editing software for the online edit.

At any moment in this process, all you have to do is hit PLAY to see how the project looks.

  • There is NO LOST TIME in making revisions
  • No more THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT issues
  • There are NO CONVERSION PROBLEMS.
    • Everyone is working in the same software

Will editors need to learn Storyboard Pro? Yes. But it will take them only 10-15 minutes to learn what they need to edit in the Storyboard Pro file. It’s a simple non-linear editor (Actually, adjusting the timing or speed of a shot is easier in Storyboard Pro than in any live-action editor). No excuse not to work in it.

Directors need to get into this too. It’s so easy for directors to play with shots, timings and make notes for the board artist within the software. (The directors I’ve worked with on the software love it!)

Until now, board artists, previs artists and editors all worked in different programs. It was (and usually still is) a cluster fuck. The board artists would send stills to editorial. Editorial would break apart the images to add moves. They would edit the shots and move scenes around. Notes would go back to the artist who would draw new panels and the process would start over.

Then as real-time animatics became possible, the board artist would export an MOV file and editorial would move the shots around, change the timings, ask for revisions of layer moves and art.

Any changes would go back to the board artist who would have to re-edit the animatic to match the timings the editor had done (duplicating the work, wasting time and increasing chances of mistakes), re-export and the editor would need to track the changed files and edit in the revised shots.

No one had a master file. That’s a waste, it complicates the process, only one person can see the finished piece and it takes longer and possible problems increase with each change.

I ran into this on a Warner Bros. feature. It took me longer to reconfigure my master files to match the editor’s changes that it took to draw any changes that were needed. If I didn’t make the changes, the director and I wouldn’t be able to see how the new changes were working in the bigger picture. It would have been so much faster for us all to work in the same program.

Some people may feel that they need to work only in their favorite program. Understandable. That’s fine if they are working alone. But in a production environment, we need to work however it works best for the entire production. The final build of the edit SHOULD be in the software the editor prefers. But each sequence should be created and edited in the software that allows the fastest, easiest and most efficient changes.

I had this argument at Digital Domain a few years ago. Management and the editors were fighting to work the way they always worked. But it’s a new time with new and better tools. I told them it didn’t matter if they didn’t want the board artists to build animatics, it was already happening. You can’t give the best visual story artists in the world the tools to create better stories and then tell them not to use those tools. Why would you want to?

Why would you want to put rules on a production process that limits your crew’s ability to do a better job? Building a realtime animatic makes board artists better at what they do.

Are board artists as good at editing as editors? No. That’s why we have editors.

Will editors always know how a sequence was envisioned as a director and a board artist are creating it? No. But when they work with an existing animatic, they can instantly see what the director envisioned (exactly like they would when viewing shot footage) and can use their skills to reorder shots and adjust timings to make it even better.

There are no downsides to board artists and editors working together during previs when they share the same program. I love working with a great editor. It makes my work look better.

So let’s work together. It’s easy. It’s faster. It’s cheaper. There are less complications. The project turns out better.

Try it. You’ll like it.

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Mark Simon, is the president of Animatics & Storyboards, Inc. and the author of Storyboards: Motion In Art, and the Facial Expressions series of books. Check out Mark’s storyboards/animatics to finished productions at http://www.storyboards-east.com/animatics/

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